Porgy and Bess

November 27, 2016

On Saturday, which is still tonight, to the SSO’s performance of “The Gershwins'” “Porgy and Bess.”

It should have been a triumph but instead much of it was an ordeal because of the extraordinarily heavy-handed approach to amplification of the (many, gifted, visiting) principal singers.

If it weren’t for the price I had paid, the unlikelihood that I would have another opportunity to hear/see this work, and the large number of people I would have had to climb over, I would have walked out long before interval or gone home at half time.

Had I done so, I believe I would have been fully entitled to ask for my money back. Even having stayed, I resent having been held hostage by my regard for the work and still feel very much short-changed and, yes, insulted.

I would have preferred no amplification at all of the singing. I can see a case for it for some of the dialogue. But if there is to be amplification, there needs to be some discrimination and proportion. In the first half, at least, there seemed to be none. All vocalists were brought up to a kind of super-forte, and a generally unremitting loudness prevailed. That is the insult – to us, the audience, to the work and to Art.

There were long faces in the foyers at interval and quite a few people did not return.

It is possible that some words were spoken at interval. Actually I know words were spoken at interval and likely at an earlier stage. It is possible they were now heeded.

Things were marginally better in the second half and there were even a few precious moments of remission or near remission from the electric wall of sound or noise.

For the sake of those going to the remaining performances, I hope there is some further moderation and discrimination in this direction.

Which will be too late for me.

As to how things came to be as bad as they were (in the first half especially tonight though the second half was far from out of the woods), for the time being words fail me but I believe there needs to be some pretty serious soul-searching by all responsible at the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, starting from the top and definitely including the people at the sound desk. What were they trying to achieve? Do they know? Do they have any idea?

I guess I may rewrite this in more moderate terms later but right now I am very very disappointed.

Damn statistics

November 20, 2016

Poisonous little story in The Australian by Rick Morton, purporting to show “data clusters” for over-representation of people born in certain overseas countries for receipt of the dole, carers payment, old age pension and invalid pension.  Does this by comparing the percentage of recipients of each benefit as at 1 July 2016 by country of birth (newly obtained DSS statistics) with the percentage of Australia’s population by country of birth in July 2015 (ABS statistics).

Source of this presumably is a Jeremy Sammut from the Centre for Independent Studies.

There may well be such clusters, for all sorts of reasons (eg: refugees suffering mental health problems after long-term detention) but I doubt that, without some adjustment for the age of each group, it is possible to reach very meaningful conclusions.

At least one comparison cries out for further explanation/comment:

Australians are more likely to be on welfare than New ­Zealanders living here as permanent residents.

Kiwis make up 2.6 per cent of the population but are under-­represented in all the major ­welfare categories.

Two observations: (1) ABS definition of “permanent residents” is not the immigration definition or one which translates into welfare eligibility;  in particular, (2) no-one should be surprised that New Zealanders are under-represented given the treatment for welfare-eligibiity of New Zealanders who came here after 26 February 2001.

In my opinion the story is rubbish but rubbish calculated to push all the right Oz hot buttons.  Predictable comment thread though a couple of people have taken the trouble to point out some of the obvious factual considerations.

Bartered Bride in Rockdale

November 15, 2016

On Saturday to Rockdale Town Hall to see the Rockdale Opera’s production of Smetana‘s second-most famous work – assuming Ma Vlast to be the most famous.

This is only the third time I have been to a Rockdale Opera production.

The first was Donizetti’s La Favorita in 2002. Andrew Byrne gives an accurate-enough account here .   As Byrne said, “somehow it ‘worked’, despite serious limitations in several areas.”

D always cites that production and my going to it as proof that I am mad (for opera).

The second time I went alone.  It was G&S and it was a bit of an epiphany: amateur G&S, like four-handed piano works, is more rewarding for the participants than for the spectator/auditor.  The fact that others obviously enjoyed it only made it worse for me.  I can quote the croaking chorus from the Frogs of Aristophanes and much more beside from the G&S corpus but I now have the anti-zeal of the apostate.  Even professional G&S is these days a stretch for me.

Back to Smetana and last Saturday.

In many respects, a trip to Rockdale Opera is like a trip back in time, to an earlier, more participatory era.  A more detailed account can be found in Leonie Bell’s history of the company.

There are some trends.

First, the chorus.  Even in the 1990s David Gyger commented that its numbers were decreasing as its average age increased, and that seems still to be the trend.  I imagine it is hard to gather together a group of amateurs who will gather for all the necessary rehearsals with no greater ambition than being in the chorus.  It is a big commitment.

The orchestra, described by Andrew Byrne in 2002 as numbering about 20 and “valiant” is now even more valiant, at about 12, made up of strings 2:1:1:1:1 (vln 1:vln 2:vla:vc:cb) and one each of flute, oboe, clarinet, horn, bassoon and percussion.

The town hall has been renovated.  The main noticeable improvement for the audience is that the rear portion of the seating is elevated on risers.  As Leonie Bell’s history recounts, the renovation of the Town Hall was preceded by a disaster where the entire accumulated costume stock of the company, mostly sewn by its long-time director, was by misadventure destroyed as asbestos-contaminated.

Tickets, $30 in 2002, are now $45.

It is obvious that the company has a very loyal and longstanding audience – by no means confined to relatives of the performers, though possibly made up of former performers and their friends.  At interval I had a momentary double-take when I heard a very familiar voice: Silvio Rivier, SBS personality and long-time ubiquitous voice over man, is an alumnus of the company.

The main principals acquitted themselves well, sometimes in the face of some adversity.  I most liked Blake Parham as Vašek, the “village idiot” (in the original – there was a thin attempt to veneer this in this productionn with a marginally less politically incorrect approach) to whom the bride is initially proposed to be married.  His part is vocally not the most demanding, but what made his performance more enjoyable to me was that, because his numbers incorporate his “idiotic” stutter, they were rhythmically better articulated than some of the other numbers.

In her history of the company, Leonie Bell writes:

In 1992 the 24 piece orchestra was significantly smaller than the 53 members of the 1940s ensemble. In the nineties they were paid students and retired professionals, earning $25 per rehearsal call. If critics complained occasionally of a lack of cohesion in the orchestra, no doubt this was a result of the company only having the finances to pay for two rehearsals of three-hours each.

Hopefully the amount has gone up from $25 since then, but I expect the principle remains the same, save that the orchestra has now become about as small as it could possibly be.

On Saturday, in any number where the tempo was not a brisk one, it seemed as though conductor Julia de Plater was scooping up the orchestra – especially the strings – to gather it/them forward into and from just about every beat.  Archimedes famously said that he could move the earth with a firm place to stand on. In this case, each beat became a kind of wobbly morass.  That the players were not far on from sight-reading probably contributed to this.

This is the adversity I referred to which must surely have made life hard for the principals.

Things were better when the music became brisker, more “rhythmic” or more familiar to the musicians. The Comedians’ Dance was even exhilarating, though I could have done without the children in the chorus punctuating this with party blowers.  (Memo to director: this is opera and the orchestra is playing cheerful music.  Enough!)

There were dancers, acrobats, children.  Everyone had a good time, some younger up-and-coming singers had a chance to get experience on stage with an orchestra. No animals were harmed in the production (the bear was played as Kevin the Koala in a chugger suit).

The company has been through some lean times.  They are working towards their 70th anniversary in 2018. I hope they get there and beyond.

Usually the company alternates lighter works with a more substantial work. The Smetana counts in this scheme as a substantial work.  When it comes to the more substantial works I do very much wish the company could find a bit more money for the orchestra – for either more rehearsals or even just one or two higher class players.  Of course both would be nice.

I suppose that really means it would be better to go on the second weekend when the orchestra will be on their fourth and fifth reads-through.

Next show is The Gondoliers. I’m happy to let the Plaza-Toros manage in my absence with the short-form band.



Sunset on Canterbury Road

November 12, 2016


Businesses all gone, apparently empty, this building roughly opposite Canterbury Station looks unlikely to make its 2020 centenary.

Meanwhile, across the road, nest to the station, a monster rises:



Lit up for aerial-drone spruiking photography:


And more to come:



November 10, 2016


Secret commissions and bribes

November 9, 2016

Matthew Gill Doepel was chief technology officer for the Catholic Education Office in Parramatta Diocese (CEOP) from 2008 to 2013.  This is a big organisation – it effectively (or not, as you will see) administers 56 primary and 22 secondary schools in western Sydney as well as four early learning centres. It employs over 6,000 staff.

This was a period which coincided with a fairly massive roll-out of IT to schools, including the Commonwealth-funded “Digital Education Revolution.”  A lot of money was spent, and CEOP was probably awash with it.

In fact there was enough money sloshing around for Mr Doepel to solicit and receive $750,200 in bribes from one supplier in the period 2008-2012 (at which point Doepel and the supplier appear to have fallen out) and $566,200 from a second supplier.  I say “enough money” because presumably the suppliers expected these amounts to be more than covered by profits they could make in return from CEOP.

Somehow, eventually, CEOP got wind of this and commenced proceedings, in 2014, against Doepel.  They also claimed against the principal of the first supplier and the supplier, though that claim was settled.

Last week the CEOP’s claim against Doepel, who by then had gone bankrupt, was determined by Justice Beech-Jones in Trustees of the Roman Catholic Church for the Diocese of Parramatta v Doepel [2016] NSWSC 1566.

I am afraid I am showing my age a bit, because what I recall from law school as being a rather tricky problem in relation to bribes was treated by His Honour as now being comfortably resolved.  Where an employee has received a bribe (the technical term here is “fiduciary” but surely anyone worth bribing in a commercial context is a fiduciary to the extent of whatever they are being bribed for), you can either recover the bribe (or “secret commission”) from them, or you can claim compensation for the loss you have sustained as a result of their acting on the bribe.  Obviously you will only do the latter if you can prove that your loss is greater than the bribe.  But unless the bribers were also taken for a ride it ought to be – if you could only prove it.

In this case, CEOP elected to claim the bribe in relation to the second provider.  In relation to the first supplier, CEOP claimed compensation for loss, measured by what the first supplier had been able to overcharge it.  CEOP did this by having an accountant analyse how much higher the supplier’s profit margin was with Parramatta Diocese as opposed to other dioceses, and inviting the court to conclude that this was the measure of the overcharging permitted by Doepel conniving with that supplier.

It’s a bit of a broad brush but (to mix metaphors) Beech-Jones took the bait.  It helped that there was no contradictor – Mr Doepel did not turn up to defend the claim, and nor did the first supplier need to, having already settled.  The court held that the first supplier had overcharged CEOP and Mr Doepel by taking the bribes had caused CEOP to lose over $6.3 million dollars.

Pause for [not] audible intake of breath.

First observation – staying away from a losing case always gives the other side a free kick – other examples posted about on this blog include Kathy Jackson and the HSU and young Andrew Farley and the Mrs Mickle music centre at Orange High School.

Second observation, if the first supplier, EDC, really overcharged the CEOP by over $6.3 million, then EDC and its principal, Mr Lowy, got off pretty lightly by settling with CEOP for only $75,000.

Thirdly, what most astounded me, though maybe it shouldn’t have, is that the CEOP has managed to keep pretty quiet the fact that it was so spectacularly ripped off by its employee. Google searches of selected keywords by me have so far drawn a total blank on any press mention of this affair.


October 31, 2016

On Sunday night on a Limelight Magazine prompted whim (helped that it was free) off to Carriageworks with D for a brief performance by Jon Rose: The Museum Goes Live.

I’ve been following Jon Rose, mostly from a distance, for years.  In very general terms, he works with music or sound made with some combination of wind, wires, bows and bicycles.  The museum in question is a collection of violin-like instruments and associated violin-related kitsch.  It’s an impressive and intriguing collection and a very sustained body of work, not to mention at least one heroically sustained joke which actually manages to be funny, albeit one that owes a bit to Peter Schickele’s PDQ Bach.

Some of Rose’s inventions and instruments used in the performance have a decidedly Heath-Robinsonish air.  A more modern one is described as a violin played by recording of trading on Wall Street – you can see that at about 6:00 here.

I think there are meant to be some more serious environmentalist and political messages beneath the tending-to-satirical surface.  I’m not necessarily convinced that the performance leads to the stated message though maybe I need to think about that a bit more.  I find this kind of message a bit on a par with words written on paintings and dancers speaking.  But if not leavened with art, would we be ready for the message?

Is it music?  D and I had a discussion about this after.  D thought it was. I tend to think not really, because I wouldn’t really want to listen to the sound on its own on repeated occasions by, say, buying a CD or whatever it is people buy now.

Afterthought: I say “I” but I mean anybody.  Sound art?  Possibly  [Outmoded litmus-test: radio play or the Italia Prize], but given the impact of the setting, performance-art.

There’s a second round beginning Wednesday and I plan to go.



All things must pass

October 29, 2016




Not my pic.  Taken from twitter, via the SMH today.

Could be my jinx, given that I linked to my own pic of the tree just a week or so ago.- No not really. I flatter myself.

Quite a few of the jacarandas in Cardigan Street Stanmore pictured by me in 2008  in the same post blew down in storms a few years later.  Looks like the trees from Sydney’s Jacaranda-planting craze of (I’d guess) the ‘twenties are reaching their natural span.

Lounging round Beethoven

October 23, 2016

Last Friday to the SOH to hear the SSO under Ashkenazy in the second-last instalment of this year’s Beethoven cycle.

The program was the third piano concerto and the Pastoral symphony.

These are favourite works for many.  The player who introduced the Night Lounge afterwards disclosed that the Pastoral Symphony was her first cassette as a teenager on her Walkman; I think it is my favourite symphony and certainly the one I know best because I studied it for a (not very successful) conducting course and wrote an essay about it once.  The third concerto is the first concerto I learnt (the last movement) and I’m pretty sure the first record of a piano concerto I bought: an early Vox recording by Alfred Brendel which I remember sampling at the sound-proof-booth at Rowe Street Records in about 1974.

I listened to most of the concerto with my eyes shut.  It seemed appropriate because the soloist, Nobuyuki Tsujii, has been blind from birth.

That’s a tricky issue.  I wasn’t aware of Tsujii’s blindness until just before I went into the hall and over all I’m glad of it.  I wouldn’t want to have been thinking “I’m off to see the blind pianist.”

Tsujii has some mannerisms the impact of which he must be quite unaware and I found I also had to confront my own squeamishness about the spectacle.  By the end I’d grown accustomed to it and no longer needed to occlude my gaze.  I suppose there’s a lesson there.

I enjoyed his playing.  He dared some very pianissimo moments; the slow movement was the best (for me).  Sometimes when things got complicated the ensemble became a bit ragged: I put that down in part because then, when Ashkenazy had to follow Tsujii in a more mechanical way, the orchestra had to follow Ashkenazy’s beat in a more mechanical way, whereas I don’t really think of VA as conductor who leads with his stick: he really operates on a kind of musical empathy and the immense respect the orchestra feel for him.

For an encore Tsujii played the Revolutionary Etude – a c-minor match for the Beethoven.  I was just aware at the end that he needed to be careful reaching up to the top of the keyboard for the final tumultuous descent.

I enjoyed the Pastoral.  Maybe the storm could have been a bit more fiery.

These concerts are Dene Olding’s second last set of concerts as concertmaster.  This was marked by a speech by Catherine Hewgill and a brief response by Olding.  I’m prepared to guess that even the apparently spontaneous bits were given at each of the concert’s repetitions.

Afterwards to the Northern Foyer for the Night Lounge event.  The music was:

Glinka – 2 songs ‘Do not tempt me needlessly’ and ‘Doubt’ – arr Eduard Herrman for violin, viola and harp (Marina and Justine Marsden and Louise Johnson).

Halvorsen – Sarabande for violin and viola after theme by Handel (Benjamin Li and Tobias Br[e]i).

Professor Teddy BOR – Bach at the Double for swing trio performed on period instruments – Stan W Kornel (viola d’amore), Fiona Ziegler (tenor viola da gamba) and Jacques Emery (billed as bass viola da gamba though I can’t say I can detect the difference).

Of these, I most enjoyed the Glinka.  Others enjoyed the Halvorsen.  I always find that sort of music more estimable than enjoyable and I felt the intimacy of chamber music was somewhat spoilt by the amplification and a bit of a shortage of direct communication between the two players.  The BOR was charming but silly.  Unfortunately the amplification did not really catch the sound of the viola d’amore at all well and the bass (of whatever sort) was not present enough – maybe some of it needed to be played up an octave?

My own preference would still be for more playing and less talking at these events.

Still it was fun if not, overall, as mellow as the last one I went to.  Atmosphere might have been enhanced if I’d bought a post-concert drink – but I don’t like to encourage the new concessionaires too much given their price hikes.  And couldn’t the bar staff sling the bottles around a bit more quietly while the musicians are playing?

In the first half of the concert there seemed to be a rash of babes in arms making vocal contributions.  Do we need a code?  First of all, infants need to be seated near exits and we should not be the innocent bystanders in any Truby-King style parental resistance to them.  My own inclination is to make tickets for children under, say, 6, at least as expensive as a babysitter. * OK, I am a grumpy non-breeder.

*Or subject to a non-vocalising bond or some kind of assessment of the child in question if at the upper end of this range.





Spring in Sydney

October 22, 2016

This year, Spring sprang right on time: 1 September was distinctly balmy.

After that, I went away – to Albany, WA, where my maternal aunt had died suddenly.  Only a few blossoms were braving it there against a generally wet and windy outlook.  Seasonally speaking and indeed in other respects it felt like a trip back in time.

In the past couple of weeks I’ve noticed the following seasonal harbingers around our place:

  1. The channel-billed cuckoo – websites say they are supposed to reach Sydney in mid-September, but this year I first heard them in early October;
  2. Koels – this year, the CBC beat them here;
  3. Star-jasmine – hedges in neighbouring houses were pregnant with buds, then all of a sudden, they all burst forth. The common jasmine is sweeter but the nutmeg-like star jasmine (actually a jasminoid) is intoxicating;
  4. JACARANDA! – I’d had my head down last weekend and this week for a trial; on Friday I looked out of the train window on the way into town and realised that they’d snuck up on me.

I’ve always liked seasonal returns.  As I experience more of them, they have a cumulative reminiscent affect. Now I’m beginning to sense a glass-half-full-half-empty tipping point: how many more of these have I to go?

I suppose it’s partly the passing of my father and my aunt this year which fuels such thoughts.  Then on Friday morning I read a surprisingly upbeat final letter (a note, really) which had been admitted to probate as the informal will of its author, aged 35.